Saturday, June 20, 2015

2015 USA tennis mid-season awards

Forthwith, the second annual On the Rise (a tennis blog) USA tennis mid-season awards, covering the period from Day 1 of Week 1 qualies through the last ball was struck at the French Open. All rankings are as of June 8, 2015. Do enjoy. And if I missed anything, or got something utterly wrong, please let me know in comments!

Grades

Overall grade: B. It was a pretty good few months to be a Team USA fan. Not the glory days of yore, but USA is on anyone's short list of top tennis country in the world - and improving - and that's good enough for a solid, sturdy B. To break it down a bit:

US Men: B-. Only one ATP title, only six guys in the Top 100, and only 12 wins in majors is not what anyone wants to see from the American men, but we have to remember the big picture. Most of our top guys maintained their rankings and at the tier below (75-250), we have a few who have made big jumps. Case in point: 7 challenger titles. And the youngsters are making very steady progress: 4 USA teens in the Top 500 (vs 2 at the beginning of the year - second only to Russia) and 14 Futures titles, mostly by teens or those very recently out of college. Unfortunately, a number of guys are hurt or slumping, and nobody is challenging for major titles. Yet.

US Women: B. But this needs to be broken down a bit further:
  • Serena Williams: A+. One loss, two majors. Exceptional.
  • US Women not including Serena: C+. One title, two additional finals, and a lackluster performance in the French Open. Not what we were hoping for after a hot start to the year that included an incredible 29 match wins at the Australian Open. There are still plenty of US women in the Top 100 but a lot of treading water after January. We have a bit higher standards for US women and they simply didn't live up to those standards as well as your blog proprietor would have liked.
MVPs ('Merica's Valuablest Players)
Serena Williams, via Instagram

1. Serena Williams. The first half was Serena's best first half ever, which is saying something. She won both
the Australian Open and the French Open in the same year for the first time in her career. She also won her 8th Miami title. She also returned, quite dramatically and graciously, to Indian Wells. She lost just once. She had 8 wins from a set down, including 4 at the French Open alone. #1 in the world for the foreseeable future. Bottom line: Serena Williams is playing amazing tennis at 33 and is finally, perhaps, getting her deserved recognition.

2. Jack Sock. Jack had a rough start to the year, missing the first couple of months due to injury and his brother's serious illness, but when he came back it was with a bang. Indian Wells: 3 top-60 wins from a set down, including a win over #16 Roberto Bautista Agut, and a doubles title with Vasek Pospisil. Bang! Miami: another Top 25 win, and a doubles final. Bang! Houston: first career ATP final. BANG! Roland Garros: overpowering Grigor Dimitrov, Pablo Carreno Busta, and Borna Coric, and taking a set from THE Rafa Nadal.

Bang.

3. Venus Williams. Only American besides Serena and Sock to win a title (Auckland). Australian Open quarters, Doha semis, Miami quarters. All at 34 (nearly 35) years of age, and with Sjogren's. Brilliant.

4. Madison Keys. She's this high mostly due to her breakout run to the Australian Open semis, beating Petra Kvitova and Venus Williams in the process. Besides that and reaching the Charleston final, though (against less-than-Premier opposition), it's been a somewhat lackluster few months, with only one other quarterfinal reached. Still, a slam semifinal is a slam semifinal.

5. Bethanie Mattek-Sands. Started 2015 with 1 slam title, now has 4 after taking the women's doubles crowns in Melbourne and Roland Garros with Lucie Safarova and the mixed title in Paris with Mike Bryan. She also two additional Premier titles - Sydney with Sania Mirza and Stuttgart with Safarova - and is at a career-high #6 in the doubles rankings, with only 200 points to defend the rest of the year.

Yes, she's had a disappointing go of it in singles - only 4 main draw wins - but she's been competitive in most of her matches and there's nothing I've seen to suggest she should leave that part of her career behind, despite Jon Wertheim's suggestion to the contrary. Assuming good health, of course.

6. Frances Tiafoe. He started 2015 outside the Top 1000 and playing Futures qualies. Since then, he's risen to #287 in the rankings, won a futures, and then won the USTA Pro Circuit French Open Wild Card Challenge. Oh and he signed with Roc Nation

Tommy Paul. Source: Twitter
7. Tommy Paul. He won Roland Garros juniors after winning two ITF Pro Circuit events on European clay and beating a top-100 guy at the Savannah Challenger. Top 500. And boy does he looooove the clay: only 4 matches this year on hard courts.

8. Madison Brengle. She ended the first half of the year on a 7-match losing streak - all in straight sets. Before that, though, she was astonishing: her first career WTA final in Hobart, 4th round of the Australian Open, semis of Stuttgart (including a win over Kvitova). She had some illness concerns in there and finally will have to start defending some of the points that got her into the Top 40. But even if this is the apex of her career, she can be proud of that first few months of 2015. Literally NOBODY saw that coming a year ago.

9. Alexander Sarkissian. He started the year at #583, now is at #210. Two Futures titles (and two additional finals) and a Challenger title. He's certainly got some weapons, but hasn't yet faced a Top 200 player this year, so we'll have to see if he's going to be able take it to the next level now.

10. Katerina Stewart. She won a $10K, $25K, and $50K this year. How many other players can say that? She reached two other $50K finals. And at Roland Garros, she reached the junior doubles final (along with Caroline Dolehide) and the quarters in junior singles - losing to eventual champion Paula Badosa Gibert. She's into the Top 200 and in about a month will be free of the WTA's age restrictions. A smart, fun player with a bright future.

11. Bjorn Fratangelo. After becoming the first American since John McEnroe to win the French Open juniors, Bjorn's pro career took some time to get off the ground. But something clicked last summer in Italy, and he won 4 Futures events and started getting some Challenger wins in the fall. He ended last year at #265. He ended the first half at #144 thanks to a Challenger title in Australia, 2 Challenger semis, and a couple of quarters. He had a statement win over Dustin Brown on clay in Heilbronn and had match points against Borna Coric at Indian Wells qualies. He's had some rough losses along the way but seems always to bounce back.

12. John Isner. What to say about Isner? He was 13-1 at Masters Series 1000 events to players not named Djokovic or Nadal, and the one loss was to Tomas Berdych 6-3 6-7(7) 6-7(1). Lots of good wins in there. But then head-scratching losses in 250s, 500s, Grand Slams, and of course Davis Cup. And his tiebreak record has been underwhelming (17-17 for the year, I think). Still, he's the #1 American, keeping a foothold in the Top 20, and the hard court season awaits.

Honorable mentions: Deiton Baughman (798 to 513), CiCi Bellis (257 to 169), Louisa Chirico (189 to 110, won French Open Wild Card Challenge), Jared Donaldson (261 to 152), Irina Falconi (back in Top 100 for first time since 2012), Alexa Glatch (639 to 165), Ryan Harrison (191 to 130), Steve Johnson (3rd round Australian & French), Connor Smith (328 to 203), Tim Smyczek (115 to 72), Frances Tiafoe (1136 to 287), Donald Young (final in Delray Beach).

10 players we're hoping will bust out in the 2nd half

These players had, for the most part, rough ends to the first half and, in most of the cases, rough first halves entirely. We're looking forward to better things to come! In no particular order:

1. Varvara Lepchenko. Has been under the weather a lot since Australia.
2. Nicole Gibbs. Just couldn't buy a win for most of the season.
3. Shelby Rogers. See #2.
4. Taylor Townsend. Only 5 tournaments played after Australia and only 3 match wins all year. Several disconcerting losses.
5. Grace Min. Finally broke into the Top 100 in March. But mostly just a dismal year featuring routine losses to non-household names like Gabriela Ce and Laura Pous-Tio.
6. Alex Kuznetsov. End of the half saw his ranking down to #276. Most recent loss: second round of a Futures event. He did have a win over Mikhail Kukushkin at the Dallas Challenger. But that was about it.
7. Denis Kudla. Not a nightmare season by any means, but not much for this talented young man to write home about.
8. Chase Buchanan. Semis of Sarasota Challenger sole good tournament result.
9. Rhyne Williams. He's been playing the Futures circuit, and losing in the quarters, including a double bagel to semi-retired Jesse Witten.
10. Jarmere Jenkins. Just really want him to do really well.

Breakout performances

Women: Madison Keys, Australian Open

Men: Jack Sock, French Open

Honorable mention: Frances Tiafoe, USTA Pro Circuit French Open Wild Card Challenge; Madison Brengle, Hobart;  Katerina Stewart, USTA Pro Circuit French Open Wild Card Challenge; Tommy Paul, European clay court swing.

10 most exciting wins

1. Madison Keys d. Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, 4-6 7-6(3) 7-6(0), Strasbourg R1. As top seed, Keys came back from a set and 0-5 down, then survived another MLB attempt to serve for the match.


Sadly, Keys had to withdraw from the tournament in the next round. As for Lucic-Baroni, she would be okay - she went on to upset Simona Halep at Roland Garros.

2. Steve Johnson d. Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, 6-3 6-3 6-7(1) 3-6 6-3, Roland Garros R1. Last year, Stevie recorded his first-ever fifth set win in dramatic fashion in the first round of the French Open against Laurent Lokoli. This year, he did it against GGL, going up two sets to none, then having to fight back from a break down in the fifth set against the Spaniard. He would go on to be one of the many victims of eventual champion Stan Wawrinka in the third round.

3. Madison Brengle d. Andrea Petkovic, 5-7 7-6(4) 6-3, Australian Open R1. Maddie fought hard as the underdog, but was down a set and 5-3 to the German Top 10 player, when all of a sudden fortune smiled and hard work paid off and she got a break at 15 then held at 15 then broke at love then, after failing to serve out the set, won the tiebreak. Yes, she caught Andrea on a bad day. But it turned out to be a huge day for Brengle.

4. Jack Sock d. Gilles Muller, 3-6 6-3 7-6(7), Indian Wells R2. One of a trio of come-from-behind matches in the desert, this was the most dramatic, particularly since it was only his second match of the year. A sign of great things to come.

5 (tie). Serena Williams d. Victoria Azarenka 7-6(5) 3-6 7-6(1), Madrid R3 and Serena Williams d. Victoria Azarenka 3-6 6-4 6-2, Roland Garros 3R. In both cases, Serena was very much on the verge of losing. In the first, Azarenka was up 6*-5 40-0 only to lose (thank in huge part to 3 consecutive double faults from 40-30). In the second, Vika was up a set and 4-2 when Serena came to life, showing the pure drive she exhibited all tournament long when her back was against the wall.

6. Ryan Harrison d. Ivo Karlovic 4-6 7-6(0) 7-6(4), Acapulco QF. Harry had a nice start to the year: a title at the Happy Valley Challenger, a set off Kei Nishikori in Memphis, then as a qualifier, a run to the semis of Acapulco, with wins against Grigor Dimitrov and this amazing win over Ivo Karlovic along the way. He became the second player in history to take a bagel tiebreak off Karlovic. He even took the first set from David Ferrer(!) before getting double bageled.  Here's a great point from the match:



7. Sachia Vickery d. Alla Kudryavtseva 7-6(6) 7-6(6), Indian Wells. There were 118 unforced errors between the two players in two sets but don't let that put you off. It was a thoroughly entertaining battle in which Vickery survived cramps and Alla, somehow, survived this look from chair umpire Anja Vreg:

8. Christina McHale d. Stephanie Foretz 6-4 1-6 12-10 , Australian Open R1. In what shall ever be known as the "saved by the vomit" match. Well by me, anyway.

9. Taylor Fritz d. Cameron Klinger 6-0 6-7(5) 6-3, Easter Bowl QF. The thing is, Fritz's miraculous comeback win (from a set and 0-5 down) in the previous round against Patrick Kypson was more article-worthy but the level shown by the fighting Klinger and then, ultimately, by the future star Fritz was extraordinary. Fritz went on to win the tournament, which coming immediately on the heels of his trip to China - where he reached the final of the ITF Junior Masters - was truly impressive. Anyway, watch the match and just enjoy.

10. Austin Krajicek d. Mikhail Kukushkin 6-2 6-7(3) 7-6(8), Memphis R1. Memphis this year had a number of exhilarating matches this year - Steve Johnson beating Dustin Brown in a 3rd set tiebreak, Donald Young overcoming Bernard Tomic in three tight sets, Sam Querrey falling to Kei Nishikori in a 3rd set tiebreak in the semis - but this one took the cake, as Krajicek recorded his 2nd career ATP main draw win (to be followed in the next round by his 3rd).

Honorable mention: Irina Falconi d. Kaia Kanepi 2-6 6-4 7-5, Australian Open R1; Irina Falconi d. Monica Puig 7-6(8) 7-6(3), Miami R1; Venus Williams d. Barbora Zahalova-Strycova 7-5 3-6 7-6(5), Doha R2; Venus Williams d. Caroline Wozniacki 2-6 6-3 6-3, Auckland F; Bryan/Bryan d. Murray/Inglot 6-3 6-2 3-6 6-7(8) 9-7, Davis Cup R1; Jarmere Jenkins d. Phillip Bester 2-6 6-2 7-6(8), Drummondville Challenger R1; Reilly Opelka d. Orlando Luz 7-5 4-6 7-5, Roland Garros juniors 3R; Austin Krajicek d. Adrian Menendez-MacEiras 6-7(3) 7-6(5) 6-4, Leon Challenger F; Allie Kiick d. Katerina Stewart 7-5 6-7(3) 7-5, Charlottesville F; Ryan Harrison d. Mardy Fish 6-4 4-6 7-6(3), Indian Wells R1.

8 most crushing losses 

1. John Isner l. James Ward 7-6(4) 7-5 3-6 6-7(3) 13-15, Davis Cup R1. Just among the most devastating losses in US Davis Cup history, otherwise NBD.

2. Madison Brengle l. Dinah Pfeizenmaier 5-7 6-0 5-7, Rio De Janeiro R2. Brengle - post-Australian swing, seeded at a WTA tournament, facing a player well outside the Top 100, and what would've been a great look at a second WTA semifinal (winner faced Larsson in the quarters) - was 2 points from winning at 5-4* in the third. Instead, she lost the last 7 points of the match. A bit of an ignominious result.

3. Austin Krajicek l. Kei Nishikori 6-4 3-6 4-6, Memphis QF. Krajicek was right there the whole match, even breaking the world #5 to get back on serve at 4*-5 in the 3rd before getting broken for the third time on the day to lose the match. Particularly disappointing because it was his first career QF, and a win would have guaranteed an American finalist (Nishikori beat Querrey in a 3rd set tiebreak in the semis - Sam was up a break in the 3rd).

4. Madison Keys l. Angelique Kerber 2-6 6-4 5-7, Charleston F. Looking for her second title, playing on her least favorite surface, facing the woman she beat in the final for her first title last year, Keys was cruising up 4-1 in the 3rd. But then Kerber did her damn lefty defensive clay magic and won the title. You can watch the comeback here.



5. Serena Williams/Alison Riske l. Sara Errani/Flavia Pennetta 0-6 3-6, Fed Cup World Group Play-off. Serena did her job in singles, beating Camila Giorgi and then staging a fantastic comeback to beat Errani 4-6 7-6(3) 3-6. But USA was completely outclassed in the final rubber, and in 2016 will yet again find themselves with no opportunity to win Fed Cup. It's so frustrating, as we are unarguably one of the Top 8 nations in women's tennis. But we're just getting beat by European teams - emphasis on teams - when it counts. Well, here's hoping for 2017!

6. Sloane Stephens l. Lauren Davis 6-1 4-6 1-6, Auckland 2R. Really it was an impressive win for Davis, who didn't give up even when down a set and 0-2. She stepped up her game and took it to Sloane, winning 9 of the last 10 games from 3*-4 down in the second set. But still ... watching how defeated Stephens seemed in that last set, and given all the hopes for her comeback year, it was kind of painful. Fortunately for Stephens, she's picked it up a bit since then, and played some of her best tennis at Roland Garros.

7. Rhyne Williams l. Renzo Olivo 2-6 7-5 6-7(7), Tallahassee Challenger 1R. Williams is such a talented player, and still young, but injuries and questionable fitness/motivation have haunted him throughout his career. When he's at his best, his variety and shotmaking ability rank him among the best America has to offer (see "best points," below). This one was rough because he came back from a set and 2-5 down, saved a match point on his serve in the third, and finally reached match point only for a line-clipper to save Olivo in the third set tiebreak. Full match here.

8. Christina McHale l. Lourdes Dominguez Lino 6-3 6-7(4) 4-6, Roland Garros 1R. I suppose this offsets her massive Australian Open win, but it still really stung. Up a set and 2-0* with 15-40 and ad-out on LDL's serve, McHale lost 4 games in a row for 2-4*. She then won 3 games in a row and served for the match - went up 5*-4 40-15 (2 match points) ... and then got broken and went on to lose the tiebreak. In the third set, McHale again went up 2-0 only to go down 3*-5. After a tough 15-point hold in which she saved 3 match points, McHale got to 0-40 on LDL's serve and got another break point after that. Three points later, her Roland Garros was over. Sigh.

Honorable mention: Noah Rubin l. Ryan Shane 6-3 6-7(4) 1-6, NCAA men's singles final; Asia Muhammad l. Tatjana Maria 6-3 2-6 6-7(5), Midland $100K 2R; Venus Williams l. Carla Suarez Navarro 6-0 1-6 5-7, Miami QF; Sam Querrey l. Vasek Pospisil 3-6 7-6(5) 6-2 4-6 4-6, Australian Open R1; Sam Querrey l. Kei Nishikori 7-5 6-7(5) 6-7(5), Memphis SF; Sam Querrey l. Sergiy Stakhovsky 6-2 4-6 2-6, Indian Wells R1; Sam Querrey l. Kevin Anderson 7-6(5) 6-7(3) 4-6, Miami R2.

5 best points

1. Kevin King vs. John-Patrick Smith, Drummondville Challenger. 87 shots, yo.



2. Caitlin Whoriskey vs. Nicole Vaidisova, Midland $100K. Down 0-5 15-40 in the third set and you come up with THIS?



3. Rhyne Williams vs. Renzo Olivo, Tallahassee Challenger. On match point down, pretty freaking fierce.


video

4 (tie). Katerina Stewart vs. Allie Kiick, Charlottesville $50K.

Shot...
... and chaser
5. Tim Smyczek vs. Rafael Nadal, Australian Open. No, not the "Sportsmanship Point" - but this one that was emblematic of the high, high level at which Smee was playing for much of this match.


Honorable mention: Lefty Serena, French Open final.

Most improved

Women: Madison Brengle. As I wrote about.
Honorable mentions: Irina Falconi, Madison Keys, Katerina Stewart, Serena Williams

Men: Jack Sock. Fears no man. Is feared by many.
Honorable mentions: Bjorn Fratangelo, Steve Johnson, Dennis Novikov, Frances Tiafoe

Comeback players of the half-year

Men: Mardy Fish. Even for just the one (singles) match ... one of the feel-good stories of the year to have Mardy back.

Women: Jessica Pegula. A long slog back but she showed she's still got some incredible shots.

Best soap opera plot

Women: Serena's return to - and withdrawal from - Indian Wells. Serena's return to the Coachella Valley was undoubtedly an iconic moment in WTA history and I don't mean to belittle it by putting it in this category. It just had soooo much going on, and everyone's eyes glued to their screens. Her 1st round match against Monica Niculescu alone was Falcon Crest-worthy. Her withdrawal immediately before the semifinal scared a lot of people but was handled well by all.

Men: Will Sam Querrey find love on Millionaire Matchmaker? Spoiler alert: he did! But then, apparently, he didn't. But we'll always have the horses!



Injured reserve: Jamie Hampton, Victoria Duval, Bradley Klahn, Brian Baker, Melanie Oudin, Christian Harrison, Vania King, Daniel Kosakowski

Welcome aboard: Edina Gallovits-Hall! (Gained US citizenship, playing under the USA flag.)

So long: Wayne Odesnik.

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